She’s Brown, She’s Smart, She’s Poly Styrene
Over the course of Black History Month 2019, TIDAL will be presenting a series of our Tracks & Traces playlists highlighting black luminaries in all genres: documenting their influences and the people they have influenced. Each playlist will be accompanied by an essay by an artist, journalist or TIDAL staffer. First up is Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys on Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex.
The immortal words of Poly Styrene are like prayers that I recite when I truly feel like I am going mad.
I’ve been compared to Poly Styrene a lot over the course of my career as a musician — and it can feel like an honorable yet cheap comparison. Sure, I would absolutely love to be like her: a strong woman of color with a voice filled with truth. But, most of the time, I feel like people just compare me to Poly because I am also a woman of color who attempts to fiercely shriek into a mic.
When I first heard about Poly Styrene, I was a pear-shaped college freshman swaddled in four light jackets; I didn’t yet understand winter in the East Coast. I finished off the look with high-water bellbottoms and a full book bag. I had just stumbled into Lower East Side venue Arlene’s Grocery, and the only thing I had in common with the assemblage — who sported shaved heads, leather jackets and cool boots — was the music we liked.
X-Ray Spex’s “Obsessed with You” came on over the loudspeakers and we were all rocking our heads to the words: “You are just a concept/You are just a dream/Of the new regime/You’re just a reflection/You are just a theme.” That voice was for everyone, but it came from someone who looked more like me than the dudes in the boots. Tattoos or no tattoos, multiple layers and all, this music was made for me.
Poly Styrene was also a non-white girl in a largely white music world. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in Bromley, England, to a Scottish-Irish mother and Somali father, Styrene started making music at age 18 — a smattering of reggae singles under the name Mari Elliott. A year later, she saw the Sex Pistols perform in London, and, inspired, put out an ad looking for band mates for her own punk outfit, X-Ray Spex.
X-Ray Spex put out their debut album, Germfree Adolescents, in 1978; it was a bright collision of punk, sax and colors — Poly Styrene was also the sharpest singer out there. She shouted to the world what felt like her innermost thoughts, the whispers in her brain. Finally, something loud that made it all right to be soft!
And while X-Ray Spex’s go-to descriptors in the history books might include “female” or “front woman of color,” Styrene’s influence is evident on punk and rock as a whole, from the Riot Grrrl movement of the ‘90s to Girl Talk, who sampled “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” on his 2006 track “Too Deep.” And even after the dissolution of X-Ray Spex, who put out just two albums, Styrene kept up a steady solo career until her death in 2011.
In a piece in the Guardian, Styrene expounded on her process: “I just channel my songs like a medium.” The result is a series of sonic poems that engage the personal as well as the political. She used metaphors, she used the power of repetition, she used shouts and chants. She sang like a chisel to turn a rock into writing.
In “Plastic Bag,” she bursts: “It’s 1977 and we are going mad/It’s 1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/It’s 1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Apathy’s a drag!” You could easily sub “2019” in for “1977.” And, yes, apathy is still a drag.
Poly Styrene passed away in 2011, but even after her death, she continues to influence and inspire. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna wrote a powerful tribute on her personal website when Poly died: “Poly lit the way for me as a female singer who wanted to sing about ideas. She taught me, by example, that fame was less the goal than something to back away from when it started to invade your core.”
FKA Twigs and Beth Ditto of Gossip also count themselves as fans and fanatics, as do her contemporaries and fellow pioneers, the Slits. The playlist below illustrates just how far Styrene’s impact reaches.
I get asked a lot what it’s like to be a woman of color playing rock & roll. From now on, when that question arises, I will close my eyes, take a deep breath and think of Poly Styrene. Styrene answered that question loud and clear with her body of work, and the answer is that rock, punk and music has never belonged to white men. That should be obvious by now, but Styrene’s immortal voice will always be there to remind punks new and old of that fact.
Victoria Ruiz is the front woman of Downtown Boys. Their album, Cost of Living, is out now.
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